The Opportunity of the Small College

THE opinion that small colleges are doomed is rapidly hardening into an axiom. The prevailing megalomania of the twentieth century is to sweep them away with its other victims. In the great evolutionary movement of the world’s social forces, so we are confidently told, there will soon be no room for anything that is not organized on the grand scale. The future economy of civilization will tolerate neither small states nor small businesses. (There are certain small states, by the way, which have need to crave pardon for the unconscionable time they take a-dying.) All the newspapers of a nation or of an empire — why not of the whole globe, while one is about it ? — are to shriek to the tuning of one editor. Amid these revolutions, how is it possible for the small college to escape ? Education is not a more sacred thing than civil government or the influence of the press; it must pay tribute, like everything else, to the new Laws of Nature. That the small college is impossible anywhere in an up-to-date universe, and especially in that uppermost - to - date section called America, is being asserted so often that people are beginning to believe it must be true. There are indications that the hubbub of these protestations is stirring the small colleges themselves into doubts whether they have a right to be alive. They are beginning to ask what they must do to be saved, and some of them are attempting to answer their own question by making themselves look as much like large colleges as their size permits. If they are “to compete with the universities,” said a professor the other day, they must do this, that, and the other thing that the universities do. Since the frog attempted to compete with the ox, there has been no such misconception of opportunity. The fable of the hare and the tortoise shows a better way.

This trouble, like so many others, springs from carelessness in definition. A more exact use of words would soon assuage the incipient panic. As long as the functions of the college are not distinguished from those of the university and of the technical school, we can expect no relief from the present discontents. There are several machines at work in the educational factory, and each of them has its own processes, for which it was definitely constructed. There can be nothing but dislocation and confusion when a machine built for a certain purpose attempts to “ compete with ” one that is intended to deal with the material at a different stage.

The word “ university ” has a very elastic signification, but it always denotes something of wider scope than the college. In England, it is generally used of an institution which holds the same relations to a number of colleges as are sustained by the federal government of this republic to the various state governments. In America, the example of Johns Hopkins has made the word familiar in the sense of an institution which, on its scholastic side, aims not so much at general culture as at the production of specialists, and which, moreover, seeks directly to promote investigation and research. The ideal university, according to this interpretation, must afford facilities for instruction in every branch of human knowledge that is capable of scientific treatment. Its equipment is imperfect as long as it cannot offer expert guidance to students in all departments of learning, from the decipherment of Hittite inscriptions to the examination of the ooze dredged from the floor of the ocean. It is evident that such an institution requires immense revenues, both to pay the salaries of its large staff of professors, and to meet the cost of its laboratories, museums, libraries, and other expensive apparatus. This necessity alone makes impossible any competition on the part of the small college, however inflated. You cannot perch a Lick telescope on every hilltop: there are not enough millionaires to go round.

The technical school is organized for a different purpose, namely, the training of a man for the definite bread-earning occupation which is to employ the energies of his adult life. Accordingly, there may be as many varieties of it as there are professions and trades in the directory. A theological seminary, a normal college, a correspondence school of journalism, a school of typewriting and shorthand, a dental institute, a medical college, a school of engineering, — all these are included in the category. Their object is to enable the beginner to profit by the accumulated skill and experience of the profession he is entering, that he may be saved from the blunders which would be inevitable if he were compelled to rely upon his own observation and experiment. Incidentally, of course, a technical school may have a high educational value, especially in certain subjects. It is possible, for instance, to teach law and medicine in such a way as to develop the mental powers of the student. But culture is not the primary aim of the curriculum of the technical school. Its purpose is the training, not of the man, but of the clergyman, the teacher, the physician, the engineer.

Both the research of the university and the professional instruction of the technical school require, as a necessary condition of their efficient working, the broader education which it is the province of the college to give. The specialist whose investigations are not based upon the foundation of a liberal culture will easily become a pedant. Poring over his own subject in his own corner, he will soon suffer from intellectual myopia. He will exaggerate out of all proportion the importance of the pursuit which absorbs him, and will not understand what place it occupies in the whole encyclopædia of knowledge. In like manner, the student in the technical school needs the preliminary of a liberal education to preserve him from narrowness and professionalism. Again, both for specialism and for technical training, the mental discipline given by a college course is in the highest degree helpful in communicating the power to master intellectual problems of any kind. To have gained the habit of attention ; to have learned how to read and to think ; to have acquired an undeviating respect for thoroughness and accuracy, — all this is half the battle when some unfamiliar subject has to be attacked. The ancient languages may seem to have little bearing upon modern life ; but, other things being equal, the man who can write a good piece of Latin prose will soon distance his uneducated companions, if set to learn cookery or the management of a railroad. President Stryker has well expressed the distinction in this respect between the function of college education and that of technical training and postgraduate research: “ The one process should make iron into steel, and the other makes steel into tools. Specialization which is not based upon a liberal culture attempts to put an edge on pot iron.”

In thus emphasizing the preparatory functions of the college, I do not overlook the fact that it serves a larger purpose still. It is necessary to lay stress upon the value of its intellectual discipline as an equipment for subsequent study, in order to make clear in what relation it stands to the two other institutions with which it is so often confused. But a liberal culture is worth a great deal more than what is gained by economizing time and energy for later specialism. In itself, it brings an enrichment of the life and a multiplication of the sources of the highest pleasures, of such a kind that no one who has any knowledge of its significance grudges the labor spent to secure it. It does not always mean wisdom, or learning, or even scholarship; but it is nevertheless forever true of it that its price is above rubies.

The pertinent question to-day is, Can this higher culture be given in a small college ? Has the college of a thousand students, with a corresponding staff, income, apparatus, etc., such an advantage in this respect over the college of a hundred or a hundred and fifty that the smaller must be crushed out of existence by the pressure of the larger ? I must avow the unfashionable belief that the balance of advantage turns the other way, and that the small college approximates more nearly than the large to the true type of a place of liberal culture. It may even be that in less than fifty years the larger colleges (and such universities as mainly perform college functions) will be constrained, in self-preservation, either to reduce their numbers, or to fashion themselves anew into a collection of small colleges.

The most obvious supremacy of the large college is in the number of its professorial staff, and, consequently, in the range of subjects in which instruction can be given. It is here, apparently, that its present popularity lies. Here, too, is hidden the flaw that will by and by make a reaction inevitable. In the case of a university of the Johns Hopkins type, the institution of every new chair, the addition of every new option to the list of studies, is a real gain. What we are now considering, however, is, not specialism, but a liberal education ; and it is a mistake to suppose that the college which has the most widely extended curriculum will necessarily give the broadest culture. It is well established that certain studies pursued in a certain way have certain results; the experiments are yet to be performed that will fix the place of others. We are still in the dark as to the educational value of a course in Japanese music.1 But there is many an undergraduate who will not be loath to offer himself as a corpus vile on which to test the worth of so fascinating a subject. He will twang merrily away at samisen and koto, content that his devotion to Oriental art is piling up for him an accumulation of merit against the day of his degree. Nor will such an easy-going young man trouble greatly about the correlation of his studies. He is quite willing to arrange his educational menu according to that fundamental principle of American diet which so amazes visitors, namely, that whatever dishes may be eaten successively may with equal propriety be eaten simultaneously. But indiscriminate blending is no more wholesome for the intellectual than for the physical digestion. Of course, what I have just said has no bearing upon the case of colleges where, with a great variety of programme, the choice of the student is so safeguarded that, in any case, he will pass through a planned and ordered curriculum, and will not escape the necessity of sometimes working hard at subjects for which he has little taste. A brief glance at the catalogues of a considerable number of colleges is enough to show, however, that these limitations are by no means universally observed. In some there is practically no plan of campaign ; the student simply runs amuck. How surprised Dickens would have been if he had been told that the system by which Mr. Samuel Weller, senior, trained his son would be the ideal toward which the expert educational opinion of the twentieth century would approximate! “ I took a good deal o’ pains with his eddication, sir ; let him run in the streets when he was very young, and shift for hisself. It is the only way to make a boy sharp, sir.” It is a desire for the exhilaration of this free-lance career that chiefly impels the present demand for the extension of the curriculum of the small colleges. Now, it cannot be denied that older systems laid too great stress upon discipline, to the undervaluing of other aims of education ; but it is equally certain that an education that is mainly discipline is better worth having than one in which discipline is ignored. The complaints we are constantly hearing of the increased luxury and laxity of college life are indications of a grave danger. Is education a thing apart from the rest of a man’s career, a pleasant vacation between submission to the authority of the home and the constant toil of a business or a profession ? If it is intended to be a preparation for life, it must somehow communicate the power to undertake drudgery with faithfulness and cheerfulness, and to put conscientious and persevering effort into tasks that are not congenial. If an undergraduate has not learned this while at college, he will pay the price of his neglect either in failure or in bitter humiliation ; for it will not take him long to discover that the world at large is not run on the elective system.

The advantage, then, which the large college is supposed to possess in the variety of its studies is to a great extent illusory. Indeed, it needs care to prevent this breadth of opportunity from becoming a snare. After all, not even a liberal culture can be gained without entering a strait gate and walking a narrow way. Except with a few richly endowed minds, dissipation of effort inevitably leads to shallowness. The compactness and thoroughness of such a course in the humanities as the resources of a small college can supply make aspirations for a more miscellaneous curriculum unnecessary and undesirable.

As a social organism, the small college is distinctly to be preferred to its larger rival. The personality of the teachers has a much greater opportunity for wholesome influence. Every member of the staff may become directly acquainted with each student in the college. The size of the institution not only allows friendly intercourse between tutors and undergraduates, but directly invites it. Further, it is possible for the undergraduates themselves to enjoy all the social advantages of academic life without splitting up into cliques or creating artificial associations. The college itself is the true fraternity.

It is somewhat surprising that, in the discussion of this question, so little advantage is taken of the lessons of experience in the working of small colleges outside America. In reading educational books and reviews, one frequently comes across lists of distinguished men who have been produced by the small colleges of New England. Every one, for example, is familiar with Webster’s famous tribute to Dartmouth. No attention, however, is called to the significant fact that nearly all the eminent men in old England who received any kind or degree of academic culture received it in small colleges. To this day, the higher education of the country is principally given in colleges which teach a very moderate number of students. According to the latest statistics to which I have access, there are in Oxford five colleges of less than 100 undergraduates each, eleven of between 100 and 200, three of between 200 and 300, and one (Christ Church) of between 300 and 400. I have not counted in this list the non-collegiate students (practically an additional college) with 200, five halls with an average of 20, and All Souls with its 5 Bible clerks. At Cambridge there are eight colleges of less than 100, six of between 100 and 200, three of between 200 and 300, and one (Trinity) of nearly 700. The three halls average 18, and the non-collegiates reach a total of 113. When Jowett went up to Balliol, that college had only about 80 undergraduate names on its books. The whole of the tuition was given by five tutors, but “ the nerve and backbone of the teaching ” lay with Tait and Scott. What intellectual vigor is possible to so small a college, with so small a tutorial staff, may be estimated from the fact that among Jowett’s contemporaries at Balliol were such men as Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Stafford Henry Northcote, Frederick Temple, John Duke Coleridge, and Arthur Hugh Clough.

It will probably be said that the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, being constituents of a large university system, afford no parallel to the case of the small colleges of America. It must be admitted that the difference is important, but its significance should not be exaggerated. If we inquire in what way the life of an Oxford undergraduate is affected by the fact that he is a member not only of a college, but of a university, we find that the university (a) fixes the curriculum for his degree and appoints the examiners ; (b) enables him to go outside his own college for some of his lectures; (c) provides him with opportunities for study in the Bodleian Library, the Museum, scientific laboratories, etc. ; and (d) enlarges the scope of his social acquaintances, and makes possible intercollegiate competition in sports. On the other hand, his own college gives him the most valuable part of his preparation for the schools, and, in the opinion of many, the most valuable part also of his social life. In his reading for Moderations and Greats he attends some outside lectures, where the audience may number a hundred ; but as a rule he gets more out of the informal catechetical teaching given to groups of ten or twelve in the classrooms of his own college, and from the correction of the essays, exercises in composition, etc., which he takes periodically to his own tutor. The system of combined lectures, begun a little more than thirty years ago by an agreement between Balliol and New, has given lecturers an opportunity of more special preparation ; but the coöperative method is not without its drawbacks, for if the new lecturer knows more about his subject, the old lecturer knew more about his men. And it is essential never to lose sight of the principle that what we are seeking to cultivate is, not letters, or science, or art, but the individual man.

It is commonly recognized that a considerable section of a liberal education is that which students owe, not to their tutors, but to one another. This, too, is for the most part obtained within the walls of the college of which they are members. The smallest college includes men who have come from different schools, who live in different counties, who hold different religious opinions, who are of different grades in society, and who anticipate very different careers in later life. It is in the mingling of these diverse elements that the social intercourse of a college operates most healthily. The acquaintances a freshman is most likely to make among outcollege men do not add so much variety to his knowledge of the world. They are probably old school friends, or they share his own interests and tastes : it may be the love of chess, or a passion for political oratory at the Union, or zeal for the propagation of High Church doctrines, or enthusiasm for the æsthetic possibilities of the banjo. No outside associations will contribute to his education more of what is fresh and unfamiliar than will meet him daily on his own staircase. A small college puts upon him the compulsion of this broadening social intercourse. A large college, on the other hand, from its very size, provides less variety : it is impossible for all the men to know one another, and they assort themselves accordingly into cliques, along the lines of some sectional interest.

The average undergraduate is little affected by that side of the work of the university which is concerned with research in subjects outside the usual curriculum of a liberal education. It is by all means desirable that a great seat of learning should provide opportunities of information, for those who wish it, respecting the original text of the Vedic scriptures or the tribal customs of the Patagonians; but the ordinary student cares for none of these things, nor is it well that he should. He has come to Oxford for a definite purpose, — he will not pass that way again, — and his tutor will see that nothing, even on the plea of intellectual curiosity or rare versatility, is allowed to interfere with the plain work mapped out for him. He may obtain permission now and then to hear a professorial lecture on some out-of-theway subject that appeals to him, but not to the damage of his legitimate reading. The main contribution that Oxford and Cambridge have hitherto made to the life of the nation has been the character of the men whom they have sent into Parliament, into the administration of government at home and abroad, into the professions, and into the highest class of journalism. That great public service would scarcely be impaired if the whole of the university professorial system — as distinguished from the college tutorial system — were abolished. Such as it has been, it is the fruit of the intense culture of the small colleges.2 “ My acquaintance with universities which have no colleges,” wrote Goldwin Smith several years ago, “ has confirmed my sense of the value of these little communities, not only as places for social training and for the formation of friendships (no unimportant object, and one which a college serves far better than a students’ club), but as affording to students personal superintendence and aid which they miss under a purely professorial system.”

After every allowance has been made for the difference in the traditions of the two countries and in their present requirements, the history of higher education in England may reasonably be interpreted as lending support to the belief that in America also the day of the small college is not, and never will be, past. It is not an ephemeral accident in the development of educational science, but stands for certain essential and permanent elements of culture. Its methods may be modified every decade, but no processes of expansion in politics or trade will alter its main purpose, or make obsolete its contribution to the national life. Indeed, the enthusiasm for education which so distinguishes the public opinion of America, and the increasing prosperity of the country, bestowing as it does upon a much larger number of young men the leisure and means requisite for an uninterrupted academic career, set before the small college greater opportunities than ever. But it can only seize the occasion by the deliberate recognition of its distinct function. “ Know thyself” is the best counsel that any of its friends can offer at this juncture. Its clear aim must be to cultivate the intellect and the character, rather than to enlarge the bounds of knowledge respecting the crustacea or the Greek particles, or to make the graduation of its students synchronize with their qualification as lawyers or physicians. Accordingly, it will not endeavor to transform itself into either a miniature university or a miniature polytechnic. It will meet the demands of the new century, not by extending its curriculum, but by compressing it. It will increase by decreasing. It will not need to wait for a richer endowment that it may continue and heighten its patriotic service, but it will turn its present revenues to more concentrated and efficient uses. Unless it is exceptionally wealthy, it will not spend much money upon buildings ; it will put every available dollar into the quality of its teaching. It will be content with a much shorter list of names on its register than is now commonly considered necessary for a respectable institution, but it will employ such a matriculation test as will insure that its energies will not be wasted in the attempt to give a higher education to men who are lacking either in the capacity or in the preparation required to profit by it. It will have the courage to reduce by one half the number of its courses, and to abolish several of its chairs, giving more adequate remuneration to the professors that remain. It will thus make the work of its staff more thorough and more permanent. Teachers of the highest quality will then find within its walls ample scope for a life career. In a word, what is needed that the tree may bear richer fruit is, not the outgrowth of more branches, but the application of the pruning knife.

There will, of course, be considerable difference of opinion as to the ideal curriculum of a college whose work is thus intensified and deepened. The president of such an institution — unless he has been appointed mainly on the ground of his merits as a smart business hustler — will presumably have a sufficient understanding of educational problems to be able to gauge the local situation, and to perceive in what way the resources at his command can be most profitably applied. Obviously, much will depend upon the stage of culture that has been reached by the average freshman. The small college which I have in my mind, however, as the general type of an institution attempting to give as liberal and thorough a preparation for life as is possible on a restricted income, would devote itself almost exclusively to the teaching of the humanities. It would accordingly need to spend nothing on laboratories or on professorships of the natural sciences. “ Then you would omit science altogether from the curriculum ? ” By no means. Science and the natural sciences are not synonyms. The word “ science,” rightly employed, indicates a sound method of investigating truth rather than a particular kind of truth. Its value for culture (as distinct from professional training) is in this habitual use of the scientific method much more than in the acquisition of a collection of facts. Courses in philosophy and history, in the hands of a competent teacher, would afford ample opportunity for the cultivation of the scientific habit of mind, and for instruction in the classification and management of material. “ But would not the curriculum you suggest, so far from giving a liberal education, be so narrow that it would itself become an example of the very specialization which you condemn, except for the university and the technical school ? ” An objection of this kind would have had force at a time when the teaching of humane letters was scarcely more than a survival of the methods of mediæval scholasticism ; but gerund-grinding and logic-chopping no longer constitute what is meant by a course in “ the humanities.” In a well-devised curriculum, the combination of such diverse yet closely allied subjects as language, literature, history, and philosophy makes it possible to appeal to a great variety of tastes and to train a great variety of gifts. In such a course, every one will find something that will be entirely congenial and arouse his enthusiasm, as well as something that will supply wholesome practice in working against the grain. Reactionary as such a confession of faith will appear in the eyes of many, I believe that even in the twentieth century a small college might be quite abreast of the times if it made Greek and Latin the staple of its lectures, allotting the first two years to scholarship and literature, and then spending the other two upon philosophy and history concurrently. The interests of English and other modern languages would not suffer to the degree that some might suppose by their being left to the spontaneous attention of the student in his leisure ; assuming, of course, that he had obtained some knowledge of them before his matriculation. Not only is translation from and into Greek and Latin — I do not refer to the abomination of construing—the best possible training in the writing of English prose, but the study of the ancient classics under the guidance of a true scholar has its result in such a critical judgment and such an appreciation of real literature as can at once be brought to bear upon modern problems. The preparation for the Oxford school of Litteræ Humaniores does not include a single lesson in any modern language or literature ; but what curriculum, in England or America, has turned out a larger proportion of writers of idiomatic English or of competent literary critics ? Would Matthew Arnold have acquired a truer insight into the genius of the great writers of France and Germany, or a firmer mastery of English style, if the Balliol of his day, instead of insisting on his studying Homer and Aristotle, had invited him to a course in contemporary European novelists ?

In any case, whether modern languages and literatures are given equal attention with the classics or are regarded as ancillary, the small college of the type I have been attempting to describe will make much of the study of the humanities, and will emphasize the value of intellectual discipline. It will persistently refuse to model its programme upon the eclecticism of an afternoon’s shopping at the department store, — one article picked up on the second floor, another on the fifth, another on the sixth, and all sent home together by the same carrier. It will resist the forces of disintegration, and will avoid the danger of making the education of the individual, as Bishop Percival has so aptly put it, “ the development of his strongest proclivities rather than his highest qualities.” In this way, it will lay a solid foundation for future edification in the university or training school; or, to revert to an earlier figure, it will weld the native iron into steel ready to be fashioned into tools of skill. Those among its alumni who, either through circumstances or by choice, do not, after graduation, turn to some specialized pursuit will at any rate have received an education that has inspired them with loftier ideals, and incalculably multiplied the possibilities of their service to the commonwealth. Such a college will not be unworthy the devotion of the ablest and most cultivated members of the teaching profession. Sometimes, it may be, it will have to witness for the truth in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation ; sometimes it will be sorely tempted to forsake its providential path for shorter cuts to popular favor ; sometimes it will find it hard not to envy the easier methods and noisier fame of rivals which set profits before profit; but always it will be supported by the assurance that, in seeking to refine and ennoble the life of coming generations, it is laboring for the highest end to which the human mind can be consecrated.

Herbert W. Horwill.

  1. I am unable to quote a case in which this subject actually forms part of a college curriculum ; but as, on opening a catalogue at random, I find an announcement of instruction in “ dramatic expression,” it appears more likely than not that, if I pursued my search further, I should somewhere come across the offer of a course in a subject even so irrelevant and remote as that mentioned above.
  2. An exception must be made in the case of natural science, which is mainly taught in the university museum, as few colleges possess laboratories of their own. I believe, also, that of late years the work of university professors and readers in history has been arranged with more direct reference than formerly to the needs of undergraduates.